woody zimmermann 120Back in the dim yesteryear of American politics, humor was the rapier of choice favored by pundits, humorists and politicians to skewer public figures they disliked – although the rapier was sometimes replaced by a broadsword or a machete. In 1860, Democrats viciously characterized Abraham Lincoln as a gorilla or a baboon for his abnormally tall and ungainly appearance. They also suggested that his intelligence wasn’t much different from either of those beasts. To be sure, Mr. Lincoln was not a handsome man. He was something of a giant in his day, standing 6’4” at a time when the average American man was 5’6” tall. His dapper opponent, Stephen Douglas, who stood only 5’4”, looked like a midget next to Lincoln’s towering stature. But during his campaign Mr. Lincoln made no attempt to answer Democrats’ “humorous” jabs. And Americans eventually realized that he was definitely no dummy.

In 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland’s peerless integrity gave him the moniker “Grover the Good.” As mayor of Buffalo, New York, and then governor of that state, he cleaned up much Tammany Hall graft and corruption. One commentator said no candidate since George Washington was so admired for his personal rectitude. His Republican opponent, James Blaine, on the other hand, was attacked for allegedly selling Congressional influence to various business-interests. In one instance he received over $110,000 from the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad for securing a federal land grant. The notorious “Mulligan letters” – detailing some of his corrupt deals – occasioned Democrats’ chant: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine…” Ultimately all this kept Blaine from receiving the GOP’s presidential nomination in both 1876 and 1880. One letter ended with the phrase, “Burn this letter.” This produced Democrats’ gleeful mantra, “Burn! Burn! Burn this letter!” during the 1884 campaign.

But Republicans also discovered a skeleton in Grover Cleveland’s closet. The saintly guv had reputedly sired an illegitimate child in Buffalo with a woman named Maria Crofts Halpin. It was never clear if Cleveland was the father. He admitted having an “illicit relationship” with Miss Halpin, but she was involved with several men at the time, including Cleveland's friend and law partner, Oscar Folsom, for whom the child was named. Cleveland took responsibility for the child’s support, since he was the only bachelor in that group of men. The sensational (for the time) disclosures inspired a rakish Republican chant that is still recalled in the pantheon of sharp-edged political humor:

“Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

All this might have wrecked Cleveland’s presidential candidacy, but he directed his aides and campaign staff to stick to the truth at all times – a strategy that worked well enough to keep the race deadlocked into its closing weeks. Then, a group of Protestant ministers attending a Blaine campaign rally made the disastrous mistake of castigating Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” Blaine, in attendance at the rally, failed to notice the anti-catholic slur, but a Democratic operative who did made sure it was widely publicized. This insult energized the Irish and Catholic vote in New York City against Blaine, causing him to lose the state by just 1200 votes and the election by a narrow electoral-college margin. In a final post-election riposte, Democrat answered the GOP’s chant by gleefully adding a line to “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

“Gone to the White House! Ha-ha-ha!” they happily chanted at the glum Republicans.

These colorful snippets from our political past show both how little things have changed, and how much. Now, as then, disclosures of salacious pasts and corrupt dealings of candidates are part of the political arsenal. And now, as then, religion and personal conduct are often used to support and attack candidates. Both sides still dig up dirt on an opponent and use it to skew the contest their way.

But things differ greatly now in the realm of sharp-edged humor. Were the Cleveland-Blaire campaign occurring today, the Republicans’ chant (“Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”) would be met with indignant denunciations from Democrats and a blizzard of outraged media commentary. ‘How dare Republicans mock an innocent child who can’t help how he was born?’ they would declaim. ‘Rich men cruelly demeaning single mothers! It’s shameful! They should be offering help, not mockery…’ Etc., etc., etc. The media circus would continue for weeks, with Democrats deploring Republicans’ “ridicule” of this poor woman and her child. Media round tables would be awash with tears over the GOP’s “insensitivity.” Meanwhile, the central issue of a candidate siring an illegitimate child would be forgotten. (There are some things you just can’t joke about today. Single motherhood is one of them.)

Last week, reports emerged that Democratic National Committee e-mail accounts had been hacked. Thousands of the messages were released to the public by Wikileaks, which had obtained them by undisclosed means. Democrats immediately charged that “the Russians” did this to hurt Mrs. Clinton and help Donald Trump. With this pre-emptive strike Dems attempted to divert public/media attention away from what the e-mails revealed about high-level bias against the campaign of Bernie Sanders. The released messages clearly showed that the fix was in for Mrs. Clinton. Disparaging comments about Senator Sanders’ Jewish religion and ethnicity were also made.

Republican candidate Donald Trump responded to all of this by expressing an ironic “hope” that the Russians might release Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 missing e-mails, which government agencies had been unable to find. It was clearly a wisecrack, but today only Democrats date to tiptoe through the minefield of political “humor.” When Republicans go there, a storm of protest and recrimination comes down on their heads.

This fact was amply illustrated when Democrats and numerous media grandees quickly denounced Mr. Trump for his “completely inappropriate” calls for a foreign power to hack Mrs. Clinton’s e-mails. Pundits and “journalists” (using the term loosely) went on about it for days, with some going so far as to charge Mr. Trump with “treason” for even suggesting such a thing. Some darkly speculated that Mr. Trump might have conspired with the Russians on the DNC hack. Democrat partisans were beside themselves with glee over the entire contrived “crisis.”

Lost in the media-orgy, however, was a plain fact: Mr. Trump did not call for anyone to hack anyone’s e-mails. He was merely twitting Mrs. Clinton for using a private e-mail account on a non-secure computer server that almost certainly was hacked by foreign interests – probably including the Russians. But that server can’t be hacked further because it is locked up in the FBI’s evidence room. The damage, if any, was done years earlier while Mrs. Clinton was Secretary of State.

Mr. Trump was using the news of the DNC hack to remind voters, tongue-in-cheek, that the Russians probably have the 33,000 missing e-mails already. Since they had (allegedly) released the DNC’s e-mails, he “hoped” they might also turn Mrs. Clinton’s missing e-mails over to the FBI, which simply couldn’t find them during its lengthy investigation. Of course, he had no real expectation of this. Millions of voters got the joke. Only Democrats and their humorless media acolytes pretended not to.

Beyond Mr. Trump’s ironic comment, however, lurks the ominous, unacknowledged possibility that a foreign power might already have Mrs. Clinton’s e-mails in hand, and plans to blackmail her with them if she is elected. Like a fire-bell in the night, this should awaken Americans and fill them with terror. Worse yet, could it be that such influence has already been exerted over Mrs. Clinton when she was Secretary of State? Only Mrs. Clinton knows for sure – but it’s certainly no laughing matter.

Did this media-kerfuffle damage Mr. Trump? Perhaps so, among people who heard only what the media said and looked no deeper. But the real lesson voters should learn from the uproar over Mr. Trump’s joke is that it’s always best to look beyond the media-spin and find the candidate’s original remarks.

Mr. Trump is not traitorous, and he didn’t advocate treason. But Mrs. Clinton’s “careless and negligent” conduct – as FBI Director Comey so scathingly put it – certainly came close to that line, and may well have crossed it. Her party and her media defenders know this well, which impelled them to attack any reminder – even in jest – of what she did.

Humor can be an effective and entertaining tool in public venues, but reaction to it – especially when media are aligned with the target of a jest – can be unpredictable. Mr. Trump needs to be more aware of this. And voters must get wise to skewed media treatment of Republican humor.